Michelle Obama tries to scare America straightAugust 18, 2020
The Democrats believe that President Donald Trump is a cancer that will slowly kill American democracy.
It’s hard to get people to kick a habit that causes cancer. You’re supposed to be encouraging and positive when you’re trying to nudge addicts to stop doing something that’s bad for them.
For most of the night Monday, the Eva Longoria-moderated Democratic Convention — really just a series of recorded speeches and music videos — struggled to balance being entertaining and uplifting with communicating the dire consequences of the pack-a-day like habit that Democrats say Trump represents. The videos ranged from sober to saccharine. Many of the speakers, who lacked the feedback of a live crowd, were mocked as stiff. The speeches were treacly.
Then Michelle Obama came on screen. If the previous hour and forty-five minutes was like the dry text of a Surgeon General’s warning, Obama’s riveting speech was the equivalent of scaring you straight with one of those grisly pictures of cancerous lungs decimated by tar and smoke.
She didn’t quite put it this way, but the takeaway was that reelecting Trump would mean certain death.
“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this,” she said, with deadly seriousness. “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
Part of the challenge for Democrats is getting across to people who don’t care much about politics just how serious a crisis they think Trump’s presidency represents.
Michelle Obama is uniquely suited to make this case.
“I am one of a handful of people living today who have seen firsthand the immense weight and awesome power of the presidency,” she said early in her speech, as if she was reaching through the screen and grabbing viewers by the lapels for the next 15 minutes.
“And let me once again tell you this. The job is hard. It requires clearheaded judgment, a mastery of complex and competing issues, a devotion to facts and history, a moral compass and an ability to listen. And an abiding belief that each of the 330 million lives in this country has meaning and worth. A president’s words have the power to move markets. They can start wars or broker peace. They can summon our better angels or awaken our worst instincts. You simply cannot fake your way through this job.”
This was not the Michelle Obama of hope and change that defined her husband’s rise. Michelle was always the less sentimental half of the Obama team, the one with slightly more pessimistic assumptions about many pockets of America. But it was still jarring, 16 years after her husband declared at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston that there were no blue states and no red states, to hear Michelle Obama plainly say “that my message won’t be heard by some people” because “we live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.”
This is surely the first time a president’s wife has repudiated her husband’s core observation about American politics as outdated and incorrect.
She of course anticipated that her scorching indictment of Donald Trump would raise questions about her own most famous political principle: “When they go low, we go high.”
She only used the president’s name once, when she said, “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country.” But her list of Trump offenses was along: “a total and utter lack of empathy,” the use of “pepper spray and rubber bullets” on “peaceful protesters,” the support of white supremacists, the “derision” that greets “stating the simple fact that a Black life matters.” These were not really policy issues in the end, Obama said, but matters of “character.”
Her warning about staying above the fray was reframed as a warning not to “degrade” oneself as Trump has. But it wasn’t about remaining above the fray, as the Obamas have occasionally been accused of over the last few years. “Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty,” she said.
Foreigners often marvel about the fact that America could elect and reelect the first Black president and then follow that history-making with someone who makes racist appeals to voters. Historians often retort that progress on civil rights in America is often followed by a retrenchment. Michelle and Barack Obama have often served as the yin and yang of this debate. Barack is the optimist from Hawaii who always told the American story as one of continued progress toward living up to the original ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
As he said in his second inaugural address:
“What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”
Michelle is the hard-headed realist from the South Side of Chicago who suggested in her memoir that Trump’s election confirmed some ugly truths she had always harbored about the United States. In many ways, the Democrats are still the party of Barack, but they are living in Michelle’s world.